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Creating a custom building portrait

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Hand-draw or use software to design your own pattern

A friend commissioned me to cut a fretwork portrait of the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C. I used her photo to create the pattern and portrait of the famous mansion.

Since then I have finished a few more house projects. Most of the homes were easy to design compared to the Biltmore House.

Of course, the more floors, features, and landscaping a house has, the more complex the pattern will be. I usually eliminate trees and other landscaping elements because they distract from the house. As you master this technique, experiment with adding a tree to the side of the house to add character to the project.

You can also add a name and address to the portrait. Choose a font that accents the design of the house—a comic sans font will not work with a Spanish-style house, and a Gothic font will not work with a colonial-style house.

I use a commercial computer program such as CorelDraw or Photoshop, or a free program such as Gimp or Inkscape. But, it’s also possible to create a pattern using a pencil, paper, and ruler.

To use a paper and pencil, print a large photograph of the building and tape it to a flat surface. Attach thin tracing paper over the photo. I use a ruler and sharp pencil to trace the lines of the house; be careful not to puncture the tracing paper with the pencil.

To use a computer program, open the photo in the software and use the pencil or line-drawing tools like a pencil.

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Materials & Tools:

For computer-generated pattern:

• Drawing software, such as CorelDraw, Photoshop, Gimp, or Inkscape 

For hand-drawn pattern:

• Tracing paper or onionskin paper (optional)

• Pencil

• Tape

• Drawing board

• Compass

• Ruler

• French curve set

For all projects:

• Plywood, 1/8" (3mm)-thick: portrait and backer, 2 each sized to the pattern

• Blades: #2 or #2 reverse-tooth spiral blades

• Drill and bits: assorted small bits

• Danish oil

• Frame


Image gallery
Define the roof. Use the line tool or a pencil and ruler to draw the major roof lines of the structure. Add the sides. Draw the two outside lines of the house. Then, draw any remaining rooflines. Draw the remaining structure lines. Use the line tool or a pencil and ruler to draw the remaining major structure lines. Add the windows. Draw windows an appropriate size for the house. I’ve included a few sample windows with larger window panes because the window muntins (the wood between the panes of glass) will be fragile as you cut. Those sample windows are available fo Add the doors, shutters, and window accents. Draw these details. Be careful with the slats in shutters; these slats can be too fragile to include depending on the size of the windows. Window accents really personalize a house. The door hardware is optiona Add the roof accents. Draw the accent lines for the roof and the soffits. These roof details add character to the design. Add the final details. Draw the steps and lower structure borders to help define the overall shape of the structure. Then, add the ground and attic vents to give the pattern a finished and complete look. Add personalized lettering (optional). Choose a font that accents the house. You may need to modify the shape of certain letters, such as “A”, “D”, and “O”, to keep the inside part from being lost. Then, cut the design using standard fretwork portrait tec
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